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March 6, 2014 | 12:00 a.m. CST
J.K. Rowling knew it, and so did the Brontë sisters. Books penned by women have a history of being undervalued and even wholly ignored. A bias that was born centuries ago continues to inhabit the literary world and thwart the efforts of female authors.
According to Rowling’s website, publisher Barry Cunningham told her that little boys are less interested in reading books by women, hence her decision to use initials in her pen name. Likewise, Charlotte and Emily Brontë elected to write under a man’s name because they understood the prejudice attached to women writers, especially in the 19th century.
VIDA, an organization that supports women in the literary arts, performs an annual count of women featured in prominent literary magazines. In 2013, Harper’s reviewed 19 books by women and 49 books by men. The same year, The New York Review of Books published 52 reviews of books written by women and 212 of books written by men.
Angered by these troubling stats, writer Joanna Walsh started the #readwomen2014 movement this past December. Author of the short fiction anthology Fractals, Walsh used the hashtag on Twitter to urge its users to read more female authors.
Walsh, who splits her time between Paris and Oxford, England, posted designs for illustrated bookmarks (shown below) and lists of her favorite authors, all of whom are women, on her blog. She offered to send them out to family, friends and fans and eventually was asked via Twitter to share the list. Walsh was delighted with the positive feedback she got from people tweeting their own favorite female authors.
After just two months, the hashtag popularized enough to make the movement an international topic. Now a full-fledged Twitter account with 2,617 followers, the #readwomen2014 movement provides a platform for writers to connect and promote the literary works of women.
“Everyone should approach #readwomen2014 in his or her own way,” Walsh said in an email. “I like to think of it as an invitation to read beyond your comfort zone and discover new writers.”
Local author and Westminster College professor Barri Bumgarner stumbled upon the hashtag in early January. She immediately decided to ask her Twitter followers the gender of the author they were reading, and the first 23 responders all said men. Because of her own experience as a published multi-genre author, Bumgarner believes the marginalization the hashtag addresses still exists in the literary world. Bumgarner writes psychological thrillers in a genre dominated by James Patterson and John Grisham; she remembers a publisher who only spoke with her because he thought she was man.
“It’s most likely an unintentional bias,” says Kim Dill, a staff member at nonprofit bookshop The Peace Nook. “It’s probably not that editors have malicious intent, but unfortunately we’ve all gotten used to living in a culture that discriminates against women. It becomes easier to overlook.”
Becky Povich, a local author with work in several Chicken Soup for the Soul anthologies, agrees with the message of the #readwomen2014 movement, though that she has never encountered such discrimination first-hand. “I haven’t had any problems getting published,” Povich says. “I find it sad, that in this day in age, there is a discrimination. I think it is harder for women.”
Bumgarner believes the movement’s power lies in its ability to raise readers’ awareness. “You can change the minds of readers before you can change the minds of publishers,” Bumgarner says. “Publishers go with the trends, but readers love a good book.”